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Clapham Manor Primary School by dRMM

[STIRLING SHORTLIST IN DETAIL] dRMM make an innovative learning environment, owing its light and spaciousness to a German glazing system, writes Geoff Shearcroft

On 5 July 2010, the coalition government killed Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, advocating greater autonomy for successful schools and a reduction in administrative and management fees. If they wanted a poster-boy for the Big Society’s devolved power then dRMM’s Clapham Manor Primary School in south-west London might just be it. An inspired headteacher was given the funds by his local authority to extend his cramped Victorian board school. An award-winning architecture practice was appointed and a £2.5 million extension duly delivered.

To my surprise, this is a very good building. Since the completion of Sauerbruch Hutton’s GSW Headquarters in Berlin in 1999 there has been a seemingly constant production of offices, hospitals, ‘ideas stores’ and schools that rely on coloured glass panels for their architectural expression.

But in the flesh, dRMM’s extension feels strangely gentle and entirely appropriate. Approaching the school, the extension slowly reveals itself from behind a cherry tree; it’s like discovering a finely polished Rubik’s Cube that’s been dropped in the garden.

Half a century after the UK’s first attempts to deliver glazed system-built schools, a finely evolved German system has allowed dRMM to achieve a reassuringly weighty, environmentally useful glass facade that both stands proud and dissolves into its tight, suburban context. The skinniness and height of the four-storey box are redolent of the original Victorian building, while its rotation away from the existing block, to lie parallel to an adjacent Grade II-listed hall, creates a generous, civic welcome.

It’s like discovering a finely polished Rubik’s Cube that’s been dropped in the garden

On a recent tour of an academy, I was disappointed to see how vast circulation spaces contrasted dramatically with cramped, poorly lit classrooms. At Clapham Manor, the airy, deliciously quiet stair space is complemented by new classrooms that are probably the best contemporary learning environments I have visited. Double and triple-aspect with easy-to-open windows, they allow a range of sensations, from nesting in a tree to perching above the rooftops. The low ceilings contrast dramatically with the existing school, as dRMM squeezed four new storeys into three Victorian.

What is not clear from visiting the building is the prolonged length of its delivery. Located in a conservation area, it took 18 months in planning. Works on site were delayed for a year due to the contractor’s ‘commercial difficulties’. The result was that 449 children spent another third of their primary education in cramped conditions.

Having experienced the speed of delivery of BSF first-hand, I can see the delivery benefits in having education secretary Michael Gove’s derided ‘consultants, architects and bureaucracy’ focused on pursuing the path of least resistance. This risk management clearly reduces delivery times but cannot help but impact upon design quality.

This leaves Dave & Co, and ultimately us, with a choice. As we review the delivery of schools and other public buildings, should we prioritise the de-risking of the delivery process or the quality of the delivered product? Given the review is being conducted by the men who deliver Currys and Tesco stores, it would seem process remains master. Yet the current and future community at Clapham Manor can only judge the quality of the product.

Geoff Shearcroft, director, AOC

Q&A Philip Marsh, director, dRMM Architects

How does it feel to be nominated for the Stirling Prize for the first time?
I’m absolutely delighted the project has been nominated for this prestigious award.

Are you surprised two schools have made it on to the shortlist this year?
I’m surprised and pleased that school buildings are increasingly being recognised, and are seen as able to compete with big-budget, large-scale cultural projects. It’s also encouraging that younger practices have the opportunity to compete against architectural heavyweights.

Was there pressure to give Clapham Manor a unique identity?
There was no requirement for the school to have a unique identity. The Victorian building already provided a strong identity and a powerful urban presence. A ‘unique’ identity developed as part of the evolution of a design that sought to provide a building of high quality that stood shoulder to shoulder with two great exemplars: the Victorian board school and the Grade II-listed hall. The ambition for the facade was that it would be an insulated external face and a useable internal wall, doubling up as bookshelves and a felt pinboard pupils’ work could be displayed on. The colours of the surrounding buildings and landscape informed the palette of the facade. Staff and students were involved in developing and selecting the colour scheme.

Which aspects of the school’s design do the children most respond to?
All of it! The ambition was to create an inspirational environment that excites children about school, offers a conducive space for learning and invokes a sense of pride. The pupils’ reaction is one of delight in its totality, rather than in one particular moment. The pupils are also delighted by the furniture, which they personally tested and selected from a range of samples.

How does the way a school project is procured affect its design? It has a considerable effect on the final product. The aspiration for any school project is significant but delivering on this is difficult. Often the form of procurement compromises the quality of the design. Clapham Manor was a traditional form of contract. This ensured that, as designers, we were able to maintain an emphasis on quality design and were supported throughout the process by senior management and the local authorities.

Do you hope a Stirling Prize win will bring greater recognition for the work of dRMM?
Making the Stirling Prize shortlist is recognition enough, but a win would be amazing, especially if it offered a gateway to a new scale of culturally and socially useful projects.

dRMM Architects
Location London, UK
Floor area 927m2
Cost £2.5 million
Start on site November 2006
Contract duration 32 months
Form of contract JCT 05 with quantities
Total cost £2.5 million
Cost per m² £2,700
Client London Borough of Lambeth
Architect dRMM Architects
Structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates
Services engineer Fulcrum Consulting (now part of Mott MacDonald)
Cost consultant Appleyard & Trew
Project manager Sprunt
Acoustics Fleming & Barron
Main contractor The Construction Partnership
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

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